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i have you now

Recipe: hunan tofu

At the beginning of the week you’re tip-toeing across frozen goose poop-laden grasses an hour before sunrise and by the end of the week you’re dodging fancy cocktails and flame throwers on a packed second floor of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Oh wait, that’s me. I was shooting the Boulder’s Best Mixologist competition on Sunday. Quite a change of scenery.

one of the sponsors

hapa sushi’s station was hopping

the gals from the kitchen were shaking things up

oak was on fire

No matter if I’m on the road in Middle-of-Nowhere or navigating the great eateries in Boulder, it doesn’t take long before I miss a home-cooked meal. That’s partly because I am a homebody and partly because I know how to cook. I hear of people getting bored with the same five meals each week and wonder to myself when was the last time I repeated a recipe at home? It seems there are always new recipes to discover and try.

ingredients: green onions, tofu, garlic, thai bird chiles, country ham

shaoxing cooking wine, dark soy sauce, sesame oil, black bean sauce, cornstarch, chicken broth

I have been on the lookout for a tofu recipe for several years. My grandma always ordered it when we went to dinner at Chef Chu’s in Palo Alto: tender tofu slices fried then simmered in a sauce with some salty country ham, a little heat, some black beans, garlic, and green onions. They called it Hunan Tofu. I scoured my recipe books, looked online, and chatted with Grandma on more than one occasion about what we thought might be the recipe, but nothing seemed to match.

helps to wear disposable gloves when handling the chiles

sliced and julienned

Until last week. I found a recipe that looked to be pretty much on target except for the fact that it was veganized. No problem, I un-veganized it and basically recreated the tofu dish that my Grandma and I shared together on so many visits. Our favorite. I added country ham the way Chef Chu’s does, but you can use pork or chicken or dried tofu strips if you like.

soak the ham in the chinese cooking wine

fry the tofu

The key is to get tender tofu that is firm enough to handle. If it’s too soft, it will fall apart and make a mess when you try to fry it. I hate deep-frying, but I’m getting better at it. What you should know about tofu if you haven’t fried it before is that it has considerable water content and makes a big fuss when you put it in hot oil. The best advice I can give is to let the tofu sit out for 15 minutes to drain off some water, then pat each piece dry before placing it in the oil. Or get a deep fat fryer? Just don’t handle the tofu for the first minute or so in the oil until the outer golden crust begins to form. I found that if you do, the tofu sticks to the tongs and breaks off in pieces.

add ham and black bean sauce to the aromatics

pour in the chicken broth

Frying the tofu is the hardest part. Once that is out of the way, everything else is like a typical stir-fry saucy thing. Sauté the aromatics in some oil, add the ham and black beans (I couldn’t find fermented black beans, so I used the black bean garlic sauce instead), stir in the liquids, thicken with cornstarch, add the tofu last. Barring the frying, the dish comes together in a matter of minutes.

add the cornstarch mixture

gently stir in the fried tofu pieces

And it comes pretty darn close to Chef Chu’s version. This dish is salty to begin with, but I think I will swap out the dark soy sauce for regular soy sauce next time as it was a little too salty. That could be because I used country ham which is like 400% of your daily recommended sodium intake. Just don’t be too enthusiastic with the soy sauce as it’s easier to add it than remove it (which you can’t). Hunan tofu goes well with a hot bowl of steamed rice.

hunan tofu

Hunan Tofu
[print recipe]
adapted from Notes from the Vegan Feast Kitchen

1/4 cup country ham, julienned
1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
1 1/4 lb. (20 oz.) firm tofu, drained
2 tbsps vegetable oil
3 green onions, julienned
2 red Thai chiles, seeded and sliced thin
1 tbsp garlic, minced or sliced thin
3 tbsps Chinese black bean sauce or fermented black beans
1 cup chicken broth
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp water

Mix the ham and sherry in a small bowl and set aside to soak. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch thick slices. Pat the tofu dry and deep fry in hot oil – about 360°F. A few tricks about frying the tofu. Put one piece in at a time because it will bubble and boil quite a bit. I try to stagger the tofu by about a minute or two. Let the piece fry for at least a minute before turning it because if you touch it too early, the tofu will stick to your utensil and break off. That’s annoying. I found 2 minutes, a flip, and then another 2 minutes worked to give the tofu a nice golden exterior. Remove the tofu from the oil and drain on a paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wok or a large saucepan over high heat. When the oil is hot, sauté the green onions, chiles, and garlic until fragrant – about a minute. Add the black bean sauce or fermented black beans, and the ham. Stir in the chicken broth, dark soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl. When the liquid begins to boil, pour the cornstarch mixture into the pan, reduce to a simmer and stir until it thickens. Add the fried tofu and gently stir to coat the tofu in the sauce. Simmer for three minutes. Serve hot with steamed rice. Makes 4 servings.

22 nibbles at “i have you now”

  1. Fiona says:

    Yum. I might try this with chicken, as Charles recently noted our “reliance” on “some recipes.” Ahem. I think that means I’m in a rut.

  2. Namitha says:

    I’m so glad that this week,temp will be in 70s here :-) Beautiful pictures from mixologist competition ! Hunan tofu looks too good

  3. pelicano says:

    Nice! I’ve always loved this dish too- however our local restaurant (Cantonese owners) always used sliced roasted pork instead, but I think the smokiness of ham would be even better- a bit bolder!

  4. Caitlin says:

    I love that you un-veganize dishes and fry healthy things like tofu. It’s just two of the many awesome things about you.

  5. Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar says:

    What an awesome looking recipe! Love it!

  6. alison says:

    could you give the vegan substitutions or link to the original recipe? i’m vegetarian and would love to know how to do this without the ham & broth without losing too much flavor.

  7. M. K. says:

    Thought you might get a chuckle out of this…I logged on a bit bleary-eyed this morning, and at 1st glance it appeared to me that the Recipe was for Human Tofu! That would certainly give extra meaning to “i have you now”!!!

  8. Christopher says:

    I came across a “dry fry” technique for tofu recently that works great; described here:

  9. shirley@Køkken says:

    Oh, this would be so good with a bowl of steamy white fluffy rice! I am so making this! Thanks for sharing this!

  10. Freddie says:

    Chinese place three block from my place has a similar dish. I often get them during their luch special hours. This look even better! I would def. try. Btw, I think dark soy sauce is less salty than light soya sauce, since it is made by adding caramel colour to the light soya.

  11. Zheng says:

    hmm i thought dark soy sauce is supposed to be less salty that regular ones. Basically the longer the fermentation, the darker and less saltier it will be

  12. shelley says:

    why I read this as ‘human’ tofu the first three times I looked at, I will never know. Maybe I was imagining the title as some metaphor for your busy schedule and feeling as wobbly as tofu. who knows, but I will definitely try it but I will need to re-veganize it first. =)

  13. Ambika says:

    That tofu looks unbelievably wonderful!!!

  14. Nekkutyttoe says:

    Tried this today – loved it! :) I also thought it was a tad bit salty, even though I used non-salted broth and went easy on the soy.. But delicious nonetheless.

  15. jenyu says:

    Fiona – Oh, I hope you found your way out of the rut!

    Namitha – Thanks!

    pelicano – I quite like the additional flavor of the ham :)

    Caitlin – ha ha! I hadn’t even thought of that.

    Katrina – thank you.

    alison – if you follow the link to the recipe I referenced, you will find what you’re looking for.

    M.K. – seems that you’re not the only one! A lot of people have been reading it as Human Tofu ;)

    Christopher – thanks for the link!

    shirley – you’re welcome :)

    Freddie – you may be right. I just assumed it was saltier because it’s thicker.

    shelley – hope you enjoy it!

    Ambika – thanks.

    Nekkuyttoe – yeah, I have to figure a way to reduce the sodium. In the meantime, eat it with plenty of rice.

  16. Agnes says:

    The pre-cooked tofu looks gorgeous and better than any I’ve been able to track down in Boulder. May I ask where you got it?

  17. jenyu says:

    Agnes – I purchased it in tetrapak at the Asian Seafood Market on 28th (south of Valmont).

  18. Weekday Vegetarian: Hunan-Style Tofu says:

    […] […]

  19. Agnes says:

    NO WAY. Thank you so much for the info!

  20. This Week's Menu - Gamerwife says:

    […] Hunan Tofu with Mushrooms & Bok […]

  21. This Week's Menu - Gamerwife says:

    […] only dishes we got to were the Hunan Tofu and the Chorizo Crusted Cod and Beans with Arugula […]

  22. Stacey says:

    I just tried this dish 2 nights ago! It was good, and also the first time I’ve ever deep-fried anything. It is pretty salty, but since I’m always looking for ways to make recipes a little healthier, I think next time I’ll also be using reduced sodium soy sauce instead of dark as well as baked chicken instead of fried tofu. And next time, I won’t make the mistake of forgetting to de-seed the peppers! It was too spicy for me that way, although my boyfriend didn’t seem to mind… Thank you for making Asian cooking so accessible!

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